Hunter Meyer, a tow-headed senior wearing a neon green captain’s band, bounces up and down on the Amherst County High School sideline during a soccer match against E.C. Glass.
It’s the team’s second-to-last game of the season, and they’re down 2-0 with 14 minutes left in the first half.
Meyer is itching to get on the field to help his teammates. He hasn’t taken his eye off the pitch since the game started, tracking the ball as it travels from end to end.
Then it’s Meyer’s turn to enter the game. Described by his coach as a “Swiss army knife,” the 18-year-old can play anywhere on the field. He starts this game in the midfield, bringing a steady head and vocal presence to the position.
It’s Meyer’s third and final year playing varsity soccer for the Lancers, and his coach Jay Jacobs said he’s come to rely on the versatile player for the leadership he displays on and off the field.
“As much as he is a great player, I just enjoy Hunter as a person,” Jacobs said. “We have great conversations. He’s never negative about anything — he’s just a really good person.”
When he hit the pitch, Meyer played his heart out.
With the sun splashing crimson and salmon-colored streaks around City Stadium as it sunk below the horizon, Meyer sprinted to win the ball on the sideline and threaded it through two Glass players to set up a shot on goal by one of his teammates.
Although the shot narrowly missed, Meyer didn’t slow his pace. He sprinted past a Hilltopper defender and passed the ball back to set up another shot.
Through it all, Meyer was a leader — directing other players and assisting his teammates on the sideline.
This selflessness and grace define Meyer.
When he was 9 years old, he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a chronic genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and can limit the ability to breathe over time because of mucus buildup in the lungs.
According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Patient Registry, more than 75% of CF patients are diagnosed before age 2. However, Meyer’s mom Kelly Kraft-Meyer said she and her husband Rich Meyer didn’t initially know anything was wrong with their only child.
“He’s very abnormal for a CF patient because he didn’t fail to thrive,” she said. “He grew; he gained weight.”
Meyer eventually was diagnosed through a sweat test, which measures the amount of chloride in sweat. People with CF have two to five times the normal amount of the mineral in their sweat.
Although the disease can cause breathing problems, Meyer doesn’t let it slow him down. He said being active always has been an integral part of his life — he first kicked a soccer ball at age 3 and hasn’t stopped since.
“With having CF, in sports I try to be better than everybody else,” he said. “Honestly, that’s just a motivational drive that anybody should have when playing sports, but with knowing that my CF can hold me back, I want to be better than it. I want to be better than CF and still be better than the people I’m competing against.”
Meyer has to do two breathing treatments per day to help manage the disease. At times, he also must take antibiotics and an enzyme for pulmonary function and an endocrine deficiency.
The family participates in the Great Strides 5K walk every year that raises awareness and funds for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Typically, Rich Meyer leads their team but this year, Meyer took over to help raise money to give back. He also volunteers through his church as well as with the Lions Club, Horizon Behavioral Health and Girls on the Run.
Soccer has always been his “go-to” sport, but in eighth grade Meyer was looking for some conditioning, so he joined the cross country team. He started indoor track in high school to stay in shape year-round.
Rich Meyer said although he can sometimes see his son’s difficulty in taking a deeper breath during longer races, Meyer’s quarterly breathing tests at UVA Medical Center reflect his conditioning.
“Ironically, the best scores he’s had are when he’s been running cross country or hard soccer,” he said.
Meyer said his doctors may have been surprised initially by how active he can be with CF, but now they understand it as an important part of his life and managing the disease.
“I think they’re really happy I do sports because they see an improvement with me through my pulmonary function tests and everything like that,” he said. “They like to see me stay at that level.”
Dr. Deborah Froh, Meyer’s pediatric pulmonologist, said exercise is beneficial for those with CF because the big breaths encourage clearing out mucus in the lungs.
“It’s almost like pulmonary therapy,” she said. “A lot of our most successful patients are those who are engaged in sports as a lifelong interest.”
Froh has treated Meyer since he was 11. She said his great sense of humor allows him to frame anything he tackles in a positive light and stay motivated in all aspects of his life — academics, sports or managing his breathing treatments.
“I think he’s just a model of how a person can have something like CF, which is a really significant medical problem, and manage that successfully as well as being a real achiever in all of the other areas of his life,” she said. “[It’s] just doing what you have to do and not letting the disease get in the way of life. It’s part of the package, but it’s not the dominant aspect. I really look forward to seeing all the great things he’s going to do in his life.”
Meyer graduated from Amherst County High School last month. He’ll start his freshman year at Roanoke College this fall, where he plans to pursue a physical therapy track with a combination of business and sports management. Although he won’t play varsity soccer for the college, Meyer wants to connect with an adult league or play club soccer while at Roanoke.
Jacobs said Amherst’s soccer team will have a Meyer-sized hole next spring.
“He’s always taken everything with the greatest [attitude],” Jacobs said. “He never complains; he does what’s best for the team at all times. … I am losing a lot of leadership but Hunter will definitely be a focal point of the leadership missing. It’s really tough because there will be a void left by his presence that I’m not comfortable admitting I have to fill. It’s not a position to fill, it’s a person to fill.”